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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Tibetans are no worse off than other Chinese

June 3, 2009

NRC International
2 June 2009

The Dalai Lama is set to visit the Netherlands this week. According to Ian
Buruma a caricature of the Tibetan as mystical and wise people crushed by a
brutal empire has been created. Support should be focused on democratic

By Ian Buruma

The recent 50th anniversary of what Tibetan activists like to call Tibetan
National Uprising Day, the day in 1959 when Tibetans in Lhasa revolted
against Chinese communist party rule. The rebellion was crushed. The dalai
lama fled to India, and for at least a decade things became a lot worse:
many Tibetans – possibly more than a million – starved to death during
chairman Mao’s Great Leap Forward campaign, temples and monasteries were
smashed, sometimes by Tibetan red guards, during the Cultural Revolution,
and a large number of people died in the violence.

Chinese officials are noticeably jumpy in this year of anniversaries (20
years after Tiananmen). Last March, I happened to be in Chengdu, in Sichuan
province, where many Tibetans live. Even foreign tourists who had no clue
about the anniversary were stopped in the streets by policemen looking for
signs of rebellion. The colourful Tibetan district was cordoned off. Not
only was it forbidden to take pictures there; one couldn’t even walk

The Chinese press, however, marked the anniversary with effusive articles
describing Tibetan joy at being liberated from centuries of feudalism and
slavery. If the China Daily , among other publications, is to be believed,
“pre-Liberation” Tibet was a living hell, and Tibetans are now happy and
grateful to be citizens of the People’s Republic of China.

Some probably are. Many are not. But if Chinese propaganda paints too dark a
picture of the Tibetan past, Westerners who sympathise with the Tibetan
cause are often too sentimental.

Communism promised modernisation

The personal charm of the dalai lama, combined with the Himalayan air of
superior spiritual wisdom, has promoted a caricature of a mystical, wise,
and peace-loving people being crushed by a brutal empire. It was not for
nothing, however, that quite a few educated Tibetans actually welcomed the
Chinese communists in 1950. The Buddhist clergy was seen, not without
reason, as hidebound and oppressive. Chinese communism promised

And that is what China’s government delivered in the last few decades.
Lhasa, a sleepy, rather grubby backwater only 30 years ago, is now a city of
huge public squares, shopping centres, and high-rise buildings, connected to
the rest of China with a high-speed railway line. It is true that Tibetans,
sparsely represented in local government, may not have benefited as much as
the Han Chinese, whose presence in cities, such as Lhasa, as soldiers,
traders, and prostitutes is so overwhelming that people worry about the
extinction of Tibetan culture, except as an official tourist attraction.

Still, there is no question that Tibetan towns are now more modern – in
terms of electrification, education, hospitals, and other public facilities
– than they were before. This is one of the arguments used not only by
Chinese officials, but by almost all Chinese, to justify Tibet’s absorption
into greater China.

This argument has a long history. Western (and, indeed, Japanese)
imperialists used it in the early twentieth century to justify their
“missions” to “civilise” or “modernise” the natives. Taiwan, under Japanese
rule, was in fact more modern than other parts of China. And the British
brought modern administration, as well as railways, universities, and
hospitals, to India.

Problem of politics

Outside a fringe of nostalgic chauvinists, however, most Europeans and
Japanese are no longer so convinced that modernisation is sufficient
validation of imperial rule. Modernisation should be carried out by
self-governing people, not imposed by foreign force. Tibetans, in other
words, should be allowed to modernise themselves.

But the Chinese have another argument up their sleeve, which seems more
plausible (and more modern). They are justly proud of the ethnic diversity
of China. Why should nationality be defined by language or ethnicity? If
Tibetans should be allowed to break away from China, why not the Welsh from
Britain, the Basques from Spain, the Kurds from Turkey, or the Kashmiris
from India?

In some cases, the answer might be: well, perhaps they should. But ethnicity
as the main marker of nationality is a vague and dangerous concept, not
least because it leaves all minorities out in the cold.

So are people wrong to support the Tibetan cause? Should we dismiss it as
sentimental nonsense? Not necessarily. The issue is not so much Tibetan
culture, or spirituality, or even national independence, but political

In this respect, the Tibetans are no worse off than other citizens of the
People’s Republic of China. Historic monuments are being bulldozed
everywhere in China in the name of development. Culture is being sterilised,
homogenised, and deprived of independence and spontaneity in all Chinese
cities, not just in Tibet. No Chinese citizen, regardless of whether he or
she is Han, Tibetan, Uighur, or Mongolian, can vote the ruling party out of

The problem, then, is not mainly one of nationality or discrimination, but
of politics. The Chinese government claims that Tibetans are happy. But,
without a free press, and the right to vote, there is no way of knowing
this. Sporadic acts of collective violence, followed by equally violent
oppression, suggest that many are not.

Without democratic reform there will be no end to this cycle, for violence
is the typical expression of people without free speech. This is true not
only for Tibet, but also for the rest of China. Tibetans will be free only
when all Chinese are free. In that sense, if in no other, all citizens of
China hang together.

Ian Buruma is a British-Dutch journalist. Buruma studied Chinese literature
in Leiden and is currently a professor of human rights and journalism at
Bard College in New York.
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